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Through the Eyes of the Locals

Sadia Ali is a National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee who seeks to unravel the conflict between “Western” and “Eastern” medicine, and to illustrate how their intersection can be beneficial to everyone in providing more treatment options and lowering costs. Her project, “A Healer’s Meridian”, focuses on reporting healthcare conditions and practices in Laos, where medicine is both new and traditional.

Photo by Sadia Ali
Photo by Sadia Ali

Recently, Andrew and I decided to take our chances and hop on our bikes to explore local villages beyond the urban sprawl of Luang Prabang. Even with a storm fast approaching, we had the intention of fully immersing ourselves in the everyday trappings of Laos village life. With a trash bag over my equipment and Andrew leading the way, we aimlessly voyaged through the winding roads of nearby mountains hoping to find an offshoot from the main road that would lead us to a hidden treasure.

As we trekked our way up the mountains at 80 km/hr, we were hit with sporadic downpour that pelted our bodies with pebbled raindrops. At times, I couldn’t see more than five feet ahead of me and was amazed at Andrew’s consistent speed and assurance. He seemed completely uninhibited by the storm above us. The terror of motorcycling in dangerous terrain had lessened substantially since the first time I got on a bike at the beginning of the trip. The slippery roads and lack of vision, however, reminded me of the fears of losing control of my bike. The locals, however, seemed to disregard these fears.

There was a brief moment where time slowed and the rain subsided. A beautiful Laotian woman elegantly perched on her motorcycle drove past us while holding a delicate white umbrella. She was dressed in a simple white dress and had a wrap that held her newborn child. With ease, she maneuvered her motorbike against the rain, down the mountain, with her child, all with one hand. I was astonished at her confidence and also felt pathetic with my own fears. Nonetheless, we pushed forward and were happy to see the rain slowly ease up ahead.

Within about an hour into our trip, we finally found a strange offshoot from the road that seemed to be an entrance to a village. The road was muddied from the rain, which made the going reasonably difficult. The village was quiet, which from our previous experience seemed to be standard. There was a small sign welcoming visitors with the name of this tiny village. The sign was in Laotian, which meant most visitors were not foreigners. Nonetheless, we turned off our bikes, afraid we were intruding on the peace. There was a small convenience shack to our right, where soda that seemed years old was preserved in a tiny refrigerator with several other imported snacks.

We continued on and within moments, we were quietly greeted by young kids hiding among the nooks and crannies of the village. We pulled out our cameras and decided to take pictures of the building and an assortment of random objects that captured the authenticity of daily life there. The kids watched and giggled as they slowly approached us. With their amazement at our photos, we got the hint that these kids wanted to have their pictures taken.

Photo taken by Andrew Sampson
Photo by Andrew Sampson

With a photo of one came photos of many and then many photos of the same lot of kids, who laughed at the pictures. Andrew and I were most entertained by one particular kid, who we immediately selected as an undiscovered model in the making. He was shyer than the rest, but he had mystique that pulled us in to take more photos.

As we were easily welcomed by the children, we gained the trust of the parents who resided deeper in the village. All of the women and men sat cramped over machinery that created an array of crafts that would later be sold in the markets at Luang Prabang.

A woman sat on a stool as she steadily spooled red yarn to be later used in the garments she would make. The men contributed to the crafts as well. A middle-aged man perched near his home was stripping the skin of what seemed like bamboo into thin, malleable strips, which began the process of basket-weaving. Weaving seemed to be this village’s specialty, as many of their homes were actually like large baskets of woven bark. These basket homes stood propped up above the ground and served as refuge for families at the village during rainy weather.

Photo taken by Andrew Sampson
Photo by Andrew Sampson
Photo taken by Sadia Ali
Photo by Sadia Ali

We continued onwards and found a path that lead us to a quiet bathing spring, where the kids played in the water as a mother did laundry. We entered the water and nestled our feet in the pebbled ground. The water was refreshingly cool after the storm had settled. As we indulged in the tranquility of our environment, an old man, naked from head to toe, walked over into the water to bathe. He was completely covered in black tattoos. It was a wild sight and as much as we wanted to take a picture of this unique incident, we refrained and just remained nonchalant as this man stood naked and bathed in front of us.

We dried ourselves off and decided to head back to the main road. As we walked towards the exit, a cart pulled over nearby that was carrying rice field workers, who were coming back from a long day of rice planting. They carried with them their equipment and whatever was cultivated that day. The lot was a blend of adolescent men and women. We watched with the kids as they unpacked their equipment. One day, when these kids come of age, they too will work on the rice fields, cultivating rice for the village.

We headed towards the convenience shack, purchased sodas that were years old, hopped on our bikes, and headed back on a sunny afternoon with a wealth of experience from a village not at all close to home.

Read More by Sadia Ali